A common story goes:

Young children love asking 'why', and they often have an earnest curiosity about it that is rare in adults. Something about the process of growing up seems to cause that childlike curiosity to stagnate.

There's a lot of compelling explanations about societal norms that actively stamp out that curiosity (i.e. school training kids to conform and regurgitate facts, parents subtly punishing kids for asking questions, etc). It seems likely to me that these are at least part of the story.

But it also wasn't obvious that they were the whole story. I could easily imagine it also just being the case that small children are optimized for learning and older humans are optimized for doing and the brain automatically shifts away from it. [edit: or that this whole thing is imagined]

Are there any cross-cultural studies that do anything to check how this phenomenon varies, depending on upbringing?

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

3 Answers

I have a kiddo whose "why phase" is in full swing and I am not actually confident that it's motivated by curiosity. It's also not the most efficient way to learn things, or even the most efficient simple way (that'd probably be something like "tell me stuff about $TOPIC"), nor is it obviously geared at that goal.

In particular, my kid (I don't know how common this is) will typically formulate his questions by re-grammatizing whatever statement was most recently made in his vicinity ("it's a nice day" "why is it a nice day?" "because it's a good temperature" "why is it a good temperature?"). This will sure keep the conversation going, but:

  • He doesn't retain the information well, sometimes asking the exact same question more than once in a period of just a few minutes, even when the answer isn't complicated compared to things he understands easily.
  • He doesn't seem to care what kind of answer he gets - he will proceed almost identically if the answer to the temperature question above has to do with it having been a similar temperature yesterday, or about the season, or about cloud cover, or if the answer is "I don't know" (he'll ask "why do you don't know").
  • He hasn't noticed any common patterns that end the line of questioning (if he ever asks why he did something, he gets, "I don't know, why did you do that?", but hasn't given up on such questions).
  • Because of how he generates new questions, he can be led around concept-space in whatever way is most convenient for his interlocutor. He doesn't circle back to stuff he's been interested in before except when he's repeating questions he forgot and settling for the same answers as last time verbatim. There isn't a sense, talking to him, that he's aware of the existence of a concept out there he really wants to grasp.

This isn't to say that he isn't curious, but I don't think the "why phase" is strongly related. When he's really interested in learning about something he wants to go interact with it. He also has other language abilities that he seems to use when what he wants really is information, like "I want to talk about it" and non-why-questions. Why questions seem to be just a button-mash for "make the adults talk to me".

I have 7 kids, so I feel qualified to make some observations on this topic.

Kid #1 asked "why" questions all the time when she was young. As a teenager, her questions have definitely decreased in frequency. This is primarily because all the questions she had as a young child actually got answered. There was a LOT of low-hanging fruit, and she picked it when she was young. She is still curious; her teachers enjoy her genuine interest in learning. It competes with her love of fan fiction, though.

Kid #4 also has some curiosity, and asks questions, though not as often as Kid#1 ever did. He, too, has fewer questions as he ages.

Kids #2, 3, and 5 never actually went through a "why" phase. They ask "Why can't I have that candy bar?" but they don't ask "Why is the sky blue?" They ask practical questions about what, when, where, and they may be quite interested if there's an interesting demonstration of something, but curiosity isn't a big part of their makeup. I have also noticed other people's kids who aren't that curious. People who say that all young kids are curious are basing that on observations of kids who are. Confirmation bias: they aren't looking for kids who aren't curious.

Kid #6 isn't very curious, but she is extremely social and wants to always hear the sound of her voice and mine, so she asks lots of questions and then doesn't listen to the content of the answers. Kid #7 's vocab consists mostly of a handful of food items and "shoes", so her curiosity can't be gauged yet.

So I'd say it's not the case that most young kids are curious and lose that as they grow older. Rather, most young kids are not that curious, and continue not to be curious as adults. The kids who are uber-curious grow up to be adults who are still curious, but whose questions are less incessant because they find answers as they go.

I know of no studies, nor even of good measures of "curiosity" to show whether this is a real effect or not. It could be that the kinds of questions that kids ask are actually low-value, and they (correctly) learn this after a few years. Some decades in, I retain a fair bit of curiosity, and much more ability to seek answers without pestering those who aren't likely to help.